Clinton Camp Tired but Happy

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Eric Thayer / Getty

Sen. Hillary Clinton during a primary election night party at The Columbus Athenaeum

Her victory speech was loud and strident, her written press statements challenging and boastful. But during the quiet moments at Hillary Clinton's rally in Columbus last night, and aboard her campaign plane bound for Washington early this morning, the mood was one of quiet relief. Winning Ohio and Texas means that her Presidential campaign will continue. But first it was time for weary smiles, a brief toast, and, finally, sleep.

"I worked my butt off. Everybody did," said Lee Dixon, 60, a Clinton volunteer in the Ohio capital, as she shuffled toward the door after last night's victory rally. "People are tired. But we are happy."

Clinton's supporters stood for hours in a dimly-lit hall in downtown Columbus, waiting quietly for their candidate to appear. The last two weeks had taken their toll. Senator Barack Obama had drawn closer to Clinton in the polls, and a number of Clinton's longtime allies were calling on her to quit the race. "We've all been a little worried, honestly," said Sherry Pickens, 49, a postal worker from Pataskala, Ohio who has volunteered to work phone banks for Clinton the last few weeks. "Around the campaign office, it really felt like we hit a low point last week."

Then the polls stabilized, with Clinton holding a narrow advantage. The Obama campaign seemed caught off guard by allegations that a top adviser sent signals to Canada that Obama's tough talk on NAFTA was merely political posturing. By last weekend, the sting of eleven straight primary losses had faded, and Clinton volunteers say they felt renewed confidence. "Right after the Wisconsin primary there was an eroding of her poll numbers in Ohio," said Ted Strickland, Ohio's governor. "The closer we got to election day, the better I felt."

With the two candidates close in the polls, the final results depended on grassroots efforts to get people out to vote. That task was complicated yesterday by terrible weather all across Ohio, with ice storms in Cleveland, driving rain in Columbus and flooding across the southern part of the state. By the time Clinton spoke to the faithful in Columbus, the rain had stopped, and it was clear that she had won Ohio by a comfortable margin. "For everybody in Ohio who's been counted out but refused to give up, this win is for you," Clinton said during her brief speech last night.

Clinton and her top staff already were aboard the campaign's jet when their Blackberry phones lit up. Fox News was calling Texas for Clinton. The aides cheered. Campaign Chairman Terry McAuliffe poured cheap Yellow Tail wine into long-stemmed glasses, and they stood in a clump in the aisle and made a quick toast.

Clinton herself would not be joining the press for any celebratory mid-air chit-chat, a campaign spokeswoman announced. Her rounds of the morning talk shows would begin in three hours, and she needed some sleep. Within minutes, most of her aides had collapsed into their seats.

"We're all going to sleep well tonight," said Matt Hicks, a volunteer who organized a series of Clinton rallies in Columbus in recent weeks. Before anyone went to bed, Clinton and her surrogates were busy preparing her supporters and the nation for the fact that the Democratic primary battle was not yet finished. Some Democratic Party leaders, including Senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, had called on Clinton to pull out of the race if she lost in Ohio. With John McCain now assured of winning the Republican Party nomination, they worried that a protracted battle between the Democratic frontrunners would divert finite money and time away from preparing for the general election.

Last night's results mean that the battle will continue for weeks, perhaps months. "Some people want to end this game in the seventh inning, and I don't think that's right," Strickland said. "This campaign is not over. Not by a long shot."

With its 188 delegates, Pennsylvania holds the next major prize in the Democratic race, but the state doesn't hold its primary until April 22. In her remarks last night, Clinton made clear that the state is next in her sights: "People in Pennsylvania and other states want their voices to count, and they should be heard." And they'll be hearing plenty from a revitalized Clinton campaign in the next few months.